April 25, 9:00-15:00
One of the best things about Rome is that there are water fountains everywhere where people can drink clean and delicious water as well as re-fill water bottles. I only had to buy one water bottle the whole time and I just kept filling it up again and again until those damned airport security people made me toss it before entering the terminal on my trip home.
One of these fountains, apparently, was in the courtyard of the building where my hostel was so you could hear the sound of running water all night long. For the most part, I actually really liked this. It sounded like rain and was very peaceful and relaxing. On the other hand there was no way I could wake up and not immediately think of how badly I needed to pee. Still, I slept surprisingly well and let myself stay in bed until 9:00, at which point I got up, shaved and showered, and headed back out into town.
I noticed it was drizzling as soon as I stepped outside, and no sooner had I rounded the first corner than an Arab guy with a bunch of umbrellas came up to me and offered to sell me one for €5. I thought about it for a second but decided that it wasn’t raining hard enough to justify the expense. As I was walking away he reduced the price to €4 but I still didn’t take him up on it. I passed five more Arabs doing the same thing over the course of the next twenty minutes.
My plan was to walk all the way to the Pantheon, the only other thing on my must-see list besides the Vatican that I hadn’t already seen. Along the way I’d get to see Trajan’s column as well as a few other goodies. There was a pretty nice fountain at the Piazza della Repubblica which I couldn’t resist taking a quick shot of.
From there I walked all the way down the Via Nazionale which is filled with shops and other things I have no interest in, but along the way the rain started to come down hard. Suddenly all those Arab guys selling umbrellas didn’t seem like such a bother. I spotted the closest one, all the way on other end of the block, and had to wait for two traffic lights before I finally got to him. Another woman was there as well and when he told her it was €5 she got all indignant, telling him it should be no more than €2. I was just about to cross the line between wet and soaked and was in no mood for this crap, so I just handed him a €5 note, took my umbrella and went my merry dry way, which I’m sure didn’t make that woman too happy.
I later passed an actual shop selling the same umbrellas for €5, so I was happy to confirm that this was not street vendor rip-off price but the price I would have paid if I’d actually bought one in a store. The street vendors must make their profits by buying in bulk.
At the end of the Via Nazionale and off to the right is Trajan’s column, something I hadn’t heard of but which Corey said I should really see. It was most definitely worth seeing—a giant column built to honor the Emperor Trajan with intricate carvings depicting great scenes from Roman history in a giant spiral going upwards. To think of all the time it must have taken to complete a work of art like that—and then to think that it’s been standing for hundreds of times as long as it took to complete. Whoever carved it out would probably be ecstatic to know just how long it would endure.
A bit further on from the column is the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II, which at this hour was surrounded by people because there was apparently some kind of ceremony going on. There were trumpets blowing and I heard someone say “Presidente de Repubblica” so I assumed maybe Berlusconi himself was about to emerge, but I couldn’t get a good view because everyone had their damned umbrellas open. I took a few pictures but most were dominated by umbrellas so I quickly gave up and continued my increasingly difficult search for the Pantheon.
That morning I’d accidentally taken the worse of the two maps I’d been given out with me, so matching up the street names to the names on the map was a real chore. After taking it out and checking it about fifteen times to figure out how to navigate all the tiny little street-lets [I’m allowed to invent some words], I finally found it.
The building is impressive enough on the outside, but the inside is what’s truly incredible. The building itself was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa (a.k.a. Emperor Augustus’s lap-dog) and re-built by the Emperor Hadrian a few centuries later, but in the 7th century it became a Catholic Church, so you’ve got all of this Christian iconography in a building built back when Christianity was illegal.
Entry was free, but the audio-guides were €5. I bought one in the hopes that I’d learn a few interesting facts, and while I did I was also reminded at just how awful these audio-guides can be. For every interesting fact they give you, they also give you seventeen boring and downright trivial facts. I’m not exaggerating when I say this audio-guide actually told you the exact dimensions of the columns in the building and described the chemical composition of the building materials. It even described the statues I was looking at—“The angel is holding a harp in its right hand and a book in its left hand”—as though I didn’t have eyes.
But without the guide I would never have known that I was looking at the tomb of Raphael, or that that floor is slightly tilted inward so that when the rain falls through the opening in the roof all the water falls into a drain in the room’s center. Because it was raining at the time, I got to see that firsthand.
I went through every item there which took surprisingly little time, which I was glad for because it was packed with people and I was anxious to leave. I stopped at a nearby restaurant which had a canopy you could sit under and stay outside even in the rain, and ordered a salad while reading a bit more from Rubicon. During the meal it stopped raining, and for the next few hours the cloud cover thinned out enough for the sun to bleed through and the weather felt just as good as it had the day before.
The Vatican being closed, the only other thing I had in mind for the day was to find one of those hop-on/hop-off bus tours and ride around Rome, hopping off at whatever points of interest I thought would be interesting. The only problem was actually finding a location where one of these buses would stop. I’d assumed they’d stop near the Pantheon because it’s one of the biggest attractions in Rome, but the streets around there are apparently too small.
I walked until I spotted one and then followed it in the direction it drove off to but never saw it stop. Eventually I came to the River Tiber, which I naturally had to stop and appreciate for a moment. The river is always one of my favorite parts of any city, particularly those of historical significance. It’s the lifeblood of any city, the main artery that allowed the original settlement to get started in the first place. The Tiber is also particularly awesome because countless corpses were tossed there whenever Ancient Rome underwent a violent episode.
I checked my map and saw that there was a tourist information center just on the other side of the river, so I made my way in there and asked the lady at the counter where I could find a stopping point for one of the bus tours. In the most condescending tone possible, she said “Do you see that big road over there leading to the Vatican? They’re all there.”
Well, I just crossed the bridge and hadn’t noticed that road, but the map made it look like the Vatican is pretty far from here. “The closest place where they stop is the Vatican?” I asked for confirmation, and she said, “What, you don’t believe me? I wouldn’t be sitting here at the tourist information center if I didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Jeez, lady, I understand that you probably get asked this a million times a day and can’t believe that people can’t figure this stuff out on their own, but you might want to consider another line of work if you can’t respond to stupid-sounding questions from tourists with at least a slight shred of politeness.
There was another tourist there and she actually came to my defense, saying “I think he believes you, he’s just not sure what to look for.” I was grateful for her help and I said, “Yeah, I see these busses all over the place but I never see them stop.” The tourist lady said, “I know what you mean. But I was just there and I definitely saw them stopped.” Three cheers for the tourist lady, a million times more helpful than the woman who actually worked there.
I very politely said goodbye to them, just confirming one more time which direction I should go and the information lady forced a smile at me as she confirmed it, obviously masking a mountain of irrational contempt she felt towards me. As I walked out the door I said the word, “bitch” under my breath, but not too quietly.
At any rate, I did find the bus tours lined up along the Via Cola di Lorenzo, the road leading to the Vatican which was actually much closer than I realized, and I found what appeared to be the best deal: €20 for two days of access to the “CitySightseeting Roma” busses. They had a red line and a blue line, the only difference between them being that the red line stopped at one or two locations the blue line didn’t and the blue line stopped at one or two locations the red line didn’t. I snapped a few shots from the bus as I waited for it to start, including one of the Vatican and one of some of the series of statues depicting the passion of the Christ, lined up along the left side of the road presumably for Good Friday.
I was glad to be off my feet again for awhile, and I enjoyed just being able to sit back and take in the sights from the bus as it wound its way through the streets of Rome. This was also the first true impression I got of what the traffic situation in Rome is really like. I couldn’t imagine driving in a city like this. There are cars and busses everywhere, but the real thing to watch out for are the moped-drivers who seem to have no fear at all. Our bus nearly crashed into about a dozen moped-drivers on just the first leg of my tour alone. The rest of the vehicles were also skirting catastrophe at every turn—I probably witnessed at least a hundred near-accidents throughout my cumulative time spent on the bus, but not one actual collision or even fender-bender. Perhaps having the Pope nearby protects them.
And while on the subject of traffic I should also mention that the situation for pedestrians is just as bananas. The town has traffic lights but they seem to only put them in places where it’s absolutely indisputably necessary to have one, and in some places where you’d think it should be absolutely indisputably necessary to have one there aren’t any. Lots of extremely busy, extremely wide streets have nothing but a zebra-crossing to get pedestrians across but no light at all. You just have to walk out and hope that the drivers will grant you the right-of-way. Pedestrians technically have the right-of-way in such situations but Roman drivers must be so fed up of stopping for them that a lot of them refuse to do so. My strategy was always just to wait until a few other people started crossing and then to hop on the bandwagon. The only sure-fire way to stay safe is to always follow the mob. In any case, I find it shocking that Roman hospitals aren’t packed to the brim with broken-legged tourists. Again, it must be the grace of the Pope.
The bus tour stops for 30 minutes near Termini station, and I used that time to hop back to my hostel, take a much-needed dump, and exchange my crappy map for the somewhat-less-crappy-but-still-highly-flawed map I’d used the day before (neither of which is the map above which you get from the bus company). I still had plenty of time when I got back on the bus, but I was glad because it gave me an opportunity to do some more reading.
I was able to get a few more good Colosseum shots as we passed by, and even managed to get the guy next to me to get a shot of me in front of it which I think came out really nicely.
Next we passed by the Circus Maximus, and I tried to get some pictures while the bus was moving but the only one that came out half-way decent was a shot in which you can’t even tell what it is. I could have hopped off there to get some better pictures but honestly it didn’t look all that impressive and I didn’t want to lose the great seat I had right at the front of the bus.
I did hop off when we reached the Piazza Venezia again because the two other things I wanted to do were to walk up the steps of the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II—the giant museum where that ceremony had taken place in the morning—to hopefully get a nice view of the city, and walk a short distance from there to the Trevi fountain.
I got a couple of nice shots from the first level of the Monumento, but I knew it would be much better from the very top, which you had to pay €7 to ride the elevator to get to. I stood near the ticket counter for a solid minute and a half debating whether to pay, but ultimately figured I was there so I might as well.
That actually turned out to be the best €7 I spent on the entire trip. I’ve seen a lot of scenic views from high points in cities before, but almost nothing compares to this. The view from the Eifel Tower in Paris may be slightly more aesthetically pleasing due to the geometry of the surrounding streets, but the fact that you can see so many thousands of years of history in a single glance from this building in Rome probably pushes it over the top. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
I had more Enigmal moments from the top of that building than at any other time, just over-awed by the very fact that I was in Rome after all this time spent longing to go there, and now I could see the entire city in all of its glory. I knew that I was in one of those moments that I would remember forever, seeing images that would flash before my eyes on my death-bed, and it gave me chills like you wouldn’t believe. I’m getting Enigmal now just remembering it, and I can’t believe it was only a few days ago. It already feels like another lifetime.
Every time I thought I might be done soaking up the scenery and deriving spiritual joy from it, I just couldn’t bring myself to go back down and I stayed longer and squeezed a bit more Enigmality out. The well never seemed to run dry. But eventually I did get on the elevator and get on with my day, blissfully unaware that the next few hours would constitute the lowlight of the trip.